KRS One, Rakim, Phife Dawg, J Dilla, Lil’ Kim. “Listen, bro – keep going!” Pusha T exclaims, imploring NME to continue listing seminal rappers whose careers never had the longevity they deserved.
As a student of rap, a connoisseur of the genre, he is visibly affected by this roll-call of fallen artists, his voice breaking at certain points to convey his frustration. Many of these rappers are ones he grew up listening to, the ones that shaped him – artists whose cadence, production, flow and rhyme schemes he studied before embarking on his career.
“A lot of our forefathers, the greats, they didn’t stand the test of time,” Pusha says. “As great as they were, I don’t know how much they are [still] appreciated. [I want] to show that rap doesn’t have to age out. When people look at me, they need to understand that I can do this forever.”
Born Terrence Thornton, the 44-year-old Virginia rapper exudes confidence that is palpable even over a Zoom call. We’re talking 24 hours after the release of the woozy single ‘Neck & Wrist’: another jewel in his long and storied career. His oeuvre over the past two decades has been peerless as his catalogue of releases has allowed him to carve a path in rap unto himself, sitting atop a throne he’s consolidated by fending off all threats from other artists attempting a coup.
By the time you’re reading this, Pusha T will have released his stunning fourth studio album, ‘It’s Almost Dry’. A 12-track project whose production is split evenly between heavyweight hip-hop producers Pharrell and Ye (aka the artist formerly known as Kanye West), it’s a floor-raising album – one that signals to the rest of the rap world that there’s a new benchmark.
“I feel like people are definitely seeing what the differences are between me and them,” Pusha says. “There’s maybe confusion and comparisons when I’m quiet, but when I’m not quiet, you actually see, ‘Oh – they’re not even close’. This [album] is exposing the difference, the creativity, the taste level.”
‘It’s Almost Dry’ is 12 tracks of scintillating steadfast coke-rap anthems blessed with more veiled references to white than a UKIP rally. It feels like the closing of a circle for the rapper, an ode to three decades of slingin’. The New York City-born rapper grew up in Virginia Beach, selling drugs as a teenager alongside his brother Gene Thornton (the rapper who was known as Malice before changing the moniker to No Malice after his conversion to Christianity in 2012).
The duo formed their rap group Clipse in 1994, spitting bars about selling drugs whilst still selling drugs before fellow Virginia Beach-native Pharrell introduced them to Elektra Records in 1997. Clipse spent the ’00s signifying the new dawn of street rap, which would set a template for many artists after, including the likes of Rick Ross.
“A lot of greats didn’t stand the test of time. People need to understand I can do this forever”
“It’s all about creating the best product you can create,” Pusha says today. “That’s just the standard. I want people to look at this street rap narration that I’m painting and understand that this is all I want to make. Don’t ask me for anything else. I’m not entertaining you. I’ve been a realist. I’ve shown you everything. I’ve won the wars. I went through label dramas. I withstood everything. Now is the best time for me to be more creative and fully uplift the genre.”
This confidence is all over ‘It’s Almost Dry’, as Pusha makes his prolific work rate look effortless. His raps, delivered with the coiled energy of someone patiently awaiting the right time to strike, point to a new phase of his career – an apex whose peaks keep being redefined and scaled. Yet Pusha is sometimes criticised for not mixing it up as an artist more, for trying new avenues of rap.
“When it’s innovative, when it’s honest, when it’s true, when it’s impactful, you’re gonna come under scrutiny,” he insists. “I’m cool with that. I can deal with the scrutiny, but you got to admit the greatness.”
‘It’s Almost Dry’ does not find Pusha demanding any acknowledgement of his greatness. He knows he’s at that level and is now delivering the projects he wants to – mainly because his Ye-produced 2018 seven-track album ‘Daytona’ was critically acclaimed and commercially successful, opening new creative avenues.
Arguably, ‘Daytona’ was the strongest project to have risen out of those chaotic 2018 summer months when Ye bunkered down in Wyoming and produced for and released multiple projects with the likes of Kid Cudi, Nas and Teyana Taylor. And yet: with Ye’s help, Pusha and Pharrell have now raised the bar further still.
“It might have started with Ye and just a couple of beats that he had pulled aside for me,” Pusha says of the new album’s creation. “I toyed with them and once I got into a [mindset] of trying to outdo ‘Daytona’, I was like, ‘How do I do that?’ And so I crossed the street and went over to Pharell’s and was like, ‘OK – you’re going to do half and he’s going to do half.’”
“I’m cool with being criticised. I can deal with the scrutiny, but you got to admit the greatness”
It’s only the magnetism and presence of a giant such as Pusha T which could bring together two generational talents to collaborate exclusively on an album. Pusha found that working with the two producers brought out the best in him. It was two vastly different styles of work ethic, culture, and production. Pharell’s was “a more [painstaking] process but Ye’s is more like a mixtape, which is my favourite feel,” he says. “I know that if I mix both of those, I’m only putting out greatness.”
Though he had “the luxury of time” in releasing ‘Daytona’, the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown gave Pusha a unique opportunity where he had abundant space to create. While they were creating what would become ‘It’s Almost Dry’ in the summer of 2020 in Pharrell’s compound in Miami, the fellow Virginia artist gave Pusha an invaluable piece of advice which allowed him to view the unreleased project in a new light.
“[Pharrell] said the evolution of me is being more of a character,” Pusha reveals. “He doesn’t like me rapping. He tells me all the time, ‘You can do that verse in your sleep.’ You have to give me the character, that matter-of-fact evil guy.” So Pharrell turned on Joker, the 2019 Batman prequel starring Joaquin Phoenix, and had it playing on mute in the background while they dug through crates of beats, finding the right ones for Pusha to rap over. “One of the songs we created was ‘Neck & Wrist’,” Pusha reveals. “He was like, ‘Look at this shit – you don’t get those bars without those visuals.’” Once the verses were laid out, Pusha knew there was a voice missing: Jay-Z’s.
“If there’s one thing that Jay realises about me,” Pusha says, “he knows that if I’m hitting him about a song, I’m not fucking joking. It’s not a game. I knew we were going to move culture with this and Jay-Z is the holy grail of street rap. I don’t know anyone else that can make ‘Neck & Wrist’, that can harness that energy, except for us three.”
The three artists – along with Ye – are part of a small cohort who have survived rap’s relentless generational cycles. Pusha T, in particular, finds himself still standing despite endless hardships, including the loss of a tour manager who was stabbed to death walking a woman to her car outside a bar.
“Ye and I are very different people. He’s very emotional and I am way more calculated”
Pharrell has been there along the way; the two worked together as early as 1997. In fact, the producer – under the Neptunes guise – helmed the early sounds of Clipse in the early 2000s. In the early 2010s, too, after the duo went on an indefinite hiatus, Pusha started working with Ye. At this time, Pusha had already gained prominence for his unique cadence and flow, his ability to rap over the strangest beats a producer could give him, which afford him a certain magnetism.
“I think it’s built on relationships, man,” he says. “Producers come to me because they know I’m open minded. I’ve been the poster child for EDM theme songs, commercial campaigns, remixes of TV themes. My voice just cuts through on tracks.”
In 2019, he even spat cold bars over the haunting, slinky piano-driven theme song from the must-watch billionaire family drama Succession. His version, ‘Puppets’, was proof of his zeitgeist-trapping versatility.
“I’m always looking to carve my own lane and I don’t want to sound like anybody else,” he says. “My artistry is never dependent on my peers. I’m definitely not the weekly group picture guy with the clique. I’ve always been a loner in regard to my rap peers that I consider friends and family. Whether it’s radio, the club or the streets, I’m always trying to disrupt.”
Pusha T has been disrupting for over a decade now. First, he worked with Ye’s G.O.O.D Music as a signed artist before becoming the label’s President. He proved himself as a solo rapper with three successive acclaimed projects: 2013’s ‘My Name Is My Name’ and 2015’s ‘Darkest Before Dawn: The Prelude’ paved the way for ‘Daytona’, which landed him the kind of global acclaim he deserved almost 10 years prior. This ability to morph and challenge himself started in 2010, in Hawaii, during Kanye West’s recording sessions for the Chicago artist’s seminal album ‘My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.’
Famously, during those sessions, Kanye forced every one of his collaborators to create multiple versions of their contributions. For Push, this occurred with his verse on ‘Runaway.’ Kanye asked for several rewrites, placing the coke-rap aficionado in uncharted territory.
“I’m somebody who’s married to what I do,” he says. “I had never been into that type of process until I got with Ye. I saw that sometimes greater things come out of it and once you get that vein, you’ve replaced that initial line with something that’s even better and then you begin to outdo what you already thought was great. The only problem with that is sometimes you get in your way and you fuck up your own timelines, but it’s a good process.”
Over the past decade, Pusha has worked with Kanye on a multitude of projects while also leading his G.O.O.D music venture as President. Despite rumours swirling of a fall-out over that specific business venture, Pusha and Ye’s love of street rap has always bonded them like siblings.
“Ye and I are very different people,” he says. “The only thing we have in common is our love of street rap. He’s a huge fan and I’m the DNA of that. We’re really parallel on it. I feel like everything else is a debate because we’re just very different people. He’s very emotional and I am way more calculated than him. So, music is never the debate; it’s the strategy that is the debate with us all day long. His superpower is his instinct, so when that’s your superpower, the shit works the majority of the time. My superpower is my calculated, methodical fucking way of going about things, being able to sit back and withstand whatever before I strike.”
On ‘It’s Almost Dry’, Pusha took two factions of his career and morphed them into one project: Pharrell-produced coke-rap anthems over eclectic production and the Ye’s samples that defined his sound in the 2010s. It gives the album a neat sense of balance, charting Pusha’s path from emerging rapper to legendary status. Yet he doesn’t spend a lot of time reflecting with these artists. “We don’t like to reminisce over much,” Pusha says. “We’re trying to be 2050 every day.”
“Oh, man – I’m one of the greatest. I’m not even gonna do numbers or all that”
And there’s plenty to look forward to: his son was born in June 2020. Before his arrival, Pusha started to realise how, if he wanted to make a new album, he had less time to give than usual as he was trying to raise a child. “I take my music extremely serious,” he says. “I don’t have time to waste because I would much rather always be with my son at home. He makes me focus a lot more because I’m trying to get back to him.”
With this seriousness and concentration in mind, Pusha wanted to ensure that both Pharrell and Ye, who each spin multiple plates, would have the necessary time required to deliver the ideas he had in mind. “With everybody else they go in with, I believe that the artist that comes in goes, ‘I’m such a fan’, and then they just do whatever they’re told, which doesn’t do much for me,” he says. “When it’s my turn to go in, I’m like, ‘Bro, we’re in training. Don’t let the other shit get in the middle of my process. We need to be sharpening our skills.’”
The result of that process is evident in every note of ‘It’s Almost Dry’. Pusha’s flow and rhythmic structure throughout the album skip nimbly over whichever beats are given to him. A frightening, cold-hearted laugh arises in unexpected moments, underpinning the project, reminding the listener that we’re listening to someone with a drug-dealing past, someone who’s unabashed about what they did to survive. The sequencing of the album, and the juxtaposition of the two opposing production sides, ensures the listener is taken on a journey through the unique mind of one of rap’s greatest ever lyricists.
“We only in the sport to be LeBrons / When you used to Platinum, that Gold be Bronze,” Pusha raps on ‘Call My Bluff’ atop a beat that bounces lazily with an infectious, menacing sound. Over a cut-up soul sample, Ye and Push trade verses on ‘Dreaming Of The Past’, with the former modulating his voice, harking back to his work on ‘My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’. ‘I Pray For You’, meanwhile, sees only the third reunion between Pusha and No Malice since Clipse’s demise. With gospel vocals and organ-heavy production, it’s reminiscent of sitting on a church pew, listening to a chorus with Pusha rapping about the accomplishments they’ve ticked off.
Over 12 tracks, in short, Pusha T has created an impeccable no-skips album. Each listen brings out a new favourite tune, while the artist himself can confidently compare it to one of rap’s greatest records.
On the twanging ‘Daytona’ track ‘The Games We Play’, Pusha compared that album to Raekwon’s seminal 1995 ‘Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…’, which is commonly referred to as ‘The Purple Tape’: “This is my ‘Purple Tape’ / Save up for rainy days.” In an interview with Pigeons and Planes that year, he explained: “To me ‘The Purple Tape’ is the holy grail of rap albums, and I tried to do the closest thing I could do to match that energy.” Has he finally achieved this feat with ‘It’s Almost Dry?’
“If ‘Daytona’ was ‘The Purple Tape…’” he says, trailing off before taking a few seconds to pause, before giving a hoot of recognition at his own answer: “If ‘Daytona’ was ‘The Purple Tapes’, then I’m going to say that I didn’t hit the mark – but it was close.” He does say, though, it was his “closest attempt to try to make ‘Hard Knock Life: Volume Two’”, referencing the 1998 album that saw Jay-Z unlock a new level of commercial success: “That’s one of my favourite albums because as a fan, this game is to grow. I’m giving people what I’m giving them and I want them to hear because, see, the thing is… I want people to understand that even from what I’m giving you, the average goes up. It still needs to go up.”
After more than two decades in a career marked by each release outdoing the previous one both artistically and commercially, it might be bold for Pusha to compare ‘It’s Almost Dry’ to a seminal Jay-Z album – but the rapper doesn’t think he’s earned the comparison – he knows it.
“Oh, man – I’m one of the greatest,” he says with a hearty laugh. “I’m not even gonna do numbers or all that. When it’s all said and done, people are gonna look at my discography, they’re gonna line them bars up, and they’re gonna say, ‘This motherfucker was ill.’”
Pusha T’s ‘It’s Almost Dry’ is out now via Def Jam and GOOD Music
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